Mutiny at Highbury
By An Old Timer
How a fans’ revolt in 1966 precipitated the exit of manager Billy Wright
Arsenal were in freefall at the start of 1966. After a 5-2 win over Sheffield Wednesday on December 28, the Gunners won just one of their next 15 games – and collapsed 3-0 at Blackburn in the FA Cup third round.
The problem, as ever through Wright’s reign, was a defence that leaked like a sieve.
That disastrous run dragged Arsenal into the relegation dog-fight. By then though, the fans had seen enough.
Wright’s legacy reads better in hindsight. He brought Don Howe to Highbury. He signed Frank McLintock (though it was Howe who converted him to a centre back in the spring of 1969). He gave a chance to young talent such as Peter Storey, Peter Simpson, Jon Sammels – and John Radford, star of the Arsenal side which reached the FA Youth Cup final in 1965.
His youth set-up paid dividends a year later, when a team including Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson beat Sunderland to win the trophy.
But Wright couldn’t cope on the major stage. His reaction to Arsenal’s slump was to sideline his two best players, George Eastham and Joe Baker – who was sold to Nottingham Forest.
The supporters wanted Wright out. After the Blackburn defeat, on January 3 – two days after a 1-0 loss at Fulham – they started voting with their feet.
A crowd of 51,805 watched the 1-1 draw with Tottenham on March 8.
The attendances thereafter read like a Championship team: 13,979 v Newcastle, less than 9,000 v West Bromwich.
A 2-0 win at Sunderland guaranteed Arsenal’s First Division future. But by then, the hapless Wright was a dead man walking.
The nadir came on May 5, when Arsenal lost 3-0 at home to Leeds, in front of just 4,554, the lowest crowd ever to watch a major match at Highbury.
To be fair, the weather was awful. It was a cold, wet night – and the Cup Winners’ Cup final between Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund was live on TV.
But the atmosphere was the pits. The Leeds team couldn’t fathom what was going on. Don Revie’s players were used to being hated in London. Especially at Arsenal, after Bobby Collins and Billy Bremner had clogged Eastham a year earlier.
My dad, who started watching Arsenal in 1933, was almost in tears. The Clock End was empty. A few fans lit a bonfire on the North Bank – or the Laundry End, as dad knew it. A bloke with a bugle played ‘The Last Post.’ It was that bad.
Wright left a few weeks later. Bertie Mee took over, with a proviso that he could return to his physiotherapist’s job if things didn’t work out.
He was a terrific organiser. But he knew he lacked in the coaching department. So he brought in Dave Sexton (google him, modern fans!) - who’d made an impressive start as Leyton Orient manager – as first team coach.
Again, I’ll leave people to draw their own parallels, if they think there are any.
*Thanks to everyone who replied, commented and expanded on my last piece, on Wright’s teams between 1962 and 1964. It’s good to know there are still plenty of us old Gooners left!
22nd February 2013
User Comment and Reaction
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ed enough.... 17:19pm 22nd Feb 2013
No......there are no parallels, because we didnt have cash cows like the Sky run premiership, and the money fuelled champions league, that allow managers like Wenger to more than outstay their welcome.... - Post No. 35162
stuart brown 17:31pm 22nd Feb 2013
great memories, billy wright was the worst manager in the last 60 yrs, he beats neil by a long way - Post No. 35166
Highbury Boy 17:47pm 22nd Feb 2013
Yes but v Leeds there were other factors apart from the heavy rain and the live Liverpool match on TV (unusual in those days as only games like the FACup Final were live). There had been a lot of games in April (7) including re-arranged matches culminating in a couple of 3-0 defeats in the week before Leeds. The Leeds match was another re-arranged game fixed unusually for the Thursday night just 2 days before the last scheduled home game v Leicester and most importantly of all word got around to boycott the game to force the Board to fire Wright. My father and I agreed to boycott the match but at the last minute my father couldn't bear to miss it so he went along to stand in the rain and watch a third successive 3-0 defeat. Bertie Mee was appointed and success returned. - Post No. 35167
Richard Dickerson 19:26pm 22nd Feb 2013
Great article Old Timer, I recall Bob Wilson describing Billy Wright as a lovely man & a great footballer but he was completely overawed by the Arsenal managers job. As stated the youth team thrived during his tenure so the foundations had been laid for a better future. Who'd have thought at the time that Pat Rice would have such a long and successful career with AFC. The 60's was a volatile time with more lows than highs. It was the middle period of a 17 year run without a trophy. Character building stuff! I attended my first Arsenal game at Spurs in 1961 on my 14TH birthday when we lost 4-2 to the Spurs double team. In my first game at Highbury we beat Man U 5-1. In the only game I went to when Arsenal weren't playing, Frank McLintock scored twice as Leicester beat Spurs 3-2. Shortly afterwards Billy Wright signed him for £80,000. One of Arsenal's best buys. Great player & captain. George Eastham & Joe Baker were my idols, to this day Eastham was the best passer of a ball I ever saw. My favourite memory of Joe Baker was when he knocked out Ron Yeats of Liverpool with the sweetest uppercut ever. Geoff Strong switched to centre forward after Joe was sent off. Joe was bought for around £70,000 from Torino. It was a very exciting signing at that time. Geoff Strong was later sold to Liverpool. As the 60's drew to an end we had the nucleus of an outstanding team most of whom came through the Arsenal ranks. Radford & Kennedy + Charlie George scoring the majority of goals ably supported by Eddie Kelly, Jon Sammels & George Armstrong, did any player ever work harder? George Graham signed from Chelsea added a touch of class, Peter Storey, Peter Simpson,Pat Rice & Bob Mcnab provided the steel. Bob Wilson remains the bravest keeper I ever saw play and such a gent with it. Being at the Lane in 71 was a memory that will never fade! A year later we were bought down to earth as Ajax taught us how football can be played in the European Cup. Many years later the great AC Milan side, Maldini, Barasi & co repeated the dose. They never gave us the ball all night. If you thought Bayern Munich were good on Tuesday you should have seen the Italians play. - Post No. 35172
maguiresbridge gooner 19:43pm 22nd Feb 2013
We're not in a relegation dog fight, but we have a defence that leaks like a sieve,and the fans have certainly seen enough and had enough,I don't think we've got to the stage of the bugler playing the last post, not for the club anyway.Another interesting history lesson Old Timer. - Post No. 35174
Croker 20:40pm 22nd Feb 2013
So according to history, Colin Lewin will be the next manager ;) - Post No. 35176
Len C 0:10am 23rd Feb 2013
I was one of the 4,554 watching the match on that awful night. I've never felt so alone. The bugler didn't help either - Post No. 35182
chris dee 9:20am 23rd Feb 2013
Yep George Eastham's left foot even puts Liam Brady's left peg to shame.Joe Baker a small,hard, combative goalscoring machine not unlike Luis Suarez. But basically the rest of Billy Wrights teams was s**t. Where ever or when ever a s**t player became available or came thru the ranks he would end up in the first team.Gordon Ferry,Eddie Clamp,Don Howe (as a player),Alan Skirton,Joe Haverty,Laurie Brown(who thankfully left for Spurs)John Sneddon and many more came and went.But to give them their dues, for all that these players were atrocious none of them reached the heights of commander in chief of awfulness attained by Andre Santos. Bertie Mee is rightly credited for turning things around but for me without Frank Mclintock it wouldn't have happened.Tough,focused and tactically astute but his two greatest assets were being great leader of men and highly ambitious.He had numerous transfer requests turned down because he felt the club were not ambitious enough (sounds familiar?),but once Mee and Howe turned things around he became the heart of the club. But what a frigging mistake Mee made selling Frank to QPR and replacing him with poor mans version of Ian Ure, one Jeff Blockley.If Frank had stayed I'm sure another couple of trophies would have been won during that period. - Post No. 35185
Simon 11:23am 23rd Feb 2013
4,500 fans and the club seemingly in freefall. Then the PHYSIO comes in and we do the double five years later. Goes to show that things can and do improve, as long as you have the guts to make wholesale changes. Sadly, there won't be a fans' revolt in 2013 (or beyond), because all the legitimate fans have already been driven out of the club. All that's left are tourists and fans of the Premier League. - Post No. 35188
Kevin 19:06pm 24th Feb 2013
Maybe no Cups in this period but great friendship with fellow supporters of a great club. These days do not have the same feeling - Post No. 35250
Tony Evans 8:06am 25th Feb 2013
And I thought the mid seventies were bad! - Post No. 35269
radfordkennedy 12:13pm 25th Feb 2013
Sadly for Billy the pressure became to much and being found face down on the treatment table monday morning totally elephants may well of hastened his demise. - Post No. 35290
26th January 2015
Online Ed: Déjà vu in Sussex